Last year, then-state Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota filed House Bill 1021, which sought to change “shall” to “may,” giving judges the option of requiring individuals or organizations denied public records to absorb the significant costs and fees associated with a prevailing lawsuit. Fortunately, the bill did not pass.

But Steube, now a Republican senator, is back at it. His Senate Bill 80 proposes the same change in wording as his House bill did and would require plaintiffs to wait five business days before suing over denial of records.

The First Amendment Foundation, open-government groups and newspaper editorials from throughout the state have characterized Steube’s bill as an unwarranted attempt to undermine the principles of public access expressed in the constitution and law. We agree.

The bill is harmful on its face, and does not include standards indicating when, and for what reasons, judges would not be required to order the prevailing plaintiff’s costs and fees to be paid. (Remember, the plaintiff must prove that records were unlawfully withheld before a judge can order payment of those expenses.)

Some unsavory characters have abused the records law – making requests at obscure government offices or to business owners in custody of records considered public, and then quickly offering to settle, at a cost. We have urged courts and Florida Bar to crack down on lawyers who use these tactics and supported legislation to mandate that records requests be filed with the trained custodians of government agencies, thereby exempting businesses.

A bill making such reasonable changes passed the Senate last year but died in the House. That legislation has been refiled this year as SB 246 and offers a better alternative to Steube’s draconian bill.

Steube’s SB 80 will be heard Tuesday by the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, which includes Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. We urge the committee to conclude that this proposal is unnecessary and inconsistent with constitutional principles, well-established law and the public’s interest. [READ MORE]